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Exposing the Lies of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

In 1967, there was intense buzz about a film that Americans had never seen before. The reason? The movie had dared to break almost every taboo of the Hays Code (aka The Production Code). It featured: partial nudity! Phallic references! Incompetent law enforcement! Sexy, cool murderers! Evil anti-heroes! And the violence–oh, the violence!

Keep in mind that the movie also became a sensation for several other reasons. For one, it starred two of what would become the hottest sex icons of the 1960s and 1970s, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. It introduced several other actors who would become stars in their own right–Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder and Estelle Parsons. It put a finger on the pulse of a folk music renaissance, which was at its peak with the likes of Bob Dylan; Simon and Garfunkel; Peter, Paul and Mary; and The Smothers Brothers.

However, what really blew audiences away was that it couldn’t have fulfilled the requirements of Counterculture Chic hunger more keenly. At the time, rebelliousness was all the rage, and the movie was just what the doctor ordered. Not only did it glorify crime and glamorize murder and mayhem, it mocked the concept of law and order–catnip to a younger generation hellbent on rebelling against rules.

Yet no matter how well it scratched the itch of 20-somethings back in the 1960s or embodied the zeitgeist, the fact remains that Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was a despicable movie that should’ve never seen the light of day, because it used artistic license to not only glamorize criminals, but make a mockery of the people who suffered at the hands of them, as well as tarnish the reputations of the heroes who risked their lives to stop them.

In light of how this pile of nihilistic manure continues to live on today as a “masterpiece”, “must see viewing” or the movie that “changed everything,” I will not only expose all that was factually wrong about the movie, but show how what often gets excused as “artistic license” was cynical, manipulative nonsense in service of evil, for lack of a better word. That is to say, rather than stretch the truth for the sake of making the story of Bonnie and Clyde interesting, the movie deliberately left out inconvenient truths or manufactured stuff out of thin air in order to sell its sociopathic leads as cool, sexy and hip anti-establishment heroes. Let us see how:

Bonnie and Clyde, a Brief Recap

In Arthur Penn’s movie, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are portrayed as an incredibly attractive, charismatic couple who look like what people in the 1960s referred to as “The Beautiful People.” Bonnie is a Southern-fried take on the sexy Swedish Blonde It Girl that was taking the Swinging Sixties by storm in movies, the fashion industry and cheesecake magazines. Clyde Barrow is a charismatic, handsome-as-fuck WASP with bright teeth, a charming smile and chiseled features reminiscent of the Kennedy clan.

When the movie opens, Bonnie is in her bedroom daydreaming in the nude, bored out of her skull, when she suddenly spots Clyde trying to steal her mother’s car. After some charming banter, it’s kismet, and the pair embark on a life of crime. Soon, they recruit a dopey kid as a getaway driver, C.W. Moss, and are later joined by Clyde’s brother Buck and his histrionic wife, Blanche.

Throughout the rest of the movie, we watch this tightknit quintet of happy-go-lucky country bumpkins rob their way across America’s Heartland, backed by charming bluegrass music and prairie landscapes. They become folk heroes as bumbling and cowardly law enforcement officials fail to capture them multiple times. However, their luck runs out when a run-in with the police kills Buck; Blanche is captured; and C.W. Moss’s father helps law enforcement ambush Bonnie and Clyde.

The movie ends in a hail of bullets and blood spurts. When the credits roll, it’s clear: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were one part Romeo and Juliet, one part Robin Hood and his Merry Men; cool and sexy as hell; and just a couple of sweet kids who never really meant to kill anybody but unfortunately did, through no fault of their own. But, more importantly, they had love, one so strong that they were willing to die for each other.

How romantic. How sweet. How inspiring. Now, here is the stark reality of who and what Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and the rest of the Barrow Gang were.

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  1. Scott Lueck

    Wow, you touched on everything I dislike about this movie. Great article! The only way I can come close to enjoying this movie is to pretend I’m watching a fictional film whose lead characters happen to be named Bonnie and Clyde.

    The only thing I wonder is how much of the blame can be placed on Warren Beatty himself. He was the producer and the star, and from what I’ve read he had just about influence on the tone of the picture as Arthur Penn. A moot point, possibly, but worth mentioning…

    • Comment by post author

      In researching this article, I do believe you’re correct about the extent of his influence. I remember reading that the real life Blanche Barrow and some other people were either approached by him personally or were made to understand that he was the one who was behind the entire project.

  2. Scott Lueck

    Fortunately, there were a few people that, when the film was released, saw it for what it was. Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko wrote a piece where he used quotes from of some of the pair’s victims to show that they were not heroes in any sense of the word. Also, the Mad Magazine parody ended with Beatty announcing his next picture – a film about another cute, fun-loving couple of the 1930’s: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.

    Unfortunately, much of the cultural elite of the time got on the ‘New Hollywood’ bandwagon, even going so far as to lambast film critics that saw the film for what it was, a cynical effort to cash in on youth coulture.

    I remember reading a book on the history of film criticism that belittled an older NYT critic by saying “and he didn’t even get Bonnie and Clyde!” Well, maybe he did, and just didn’t like what he saw.

    • Comment by post author

      I’m currently trying to fill in the gaps of what I thought I knew about New Hollywood (to counter the decades of propaganda), and in all the material that I’ve read, it’s been nothing but infuriating to read how the cultural elites you talked about successfully used this movie as a cultural flashpoint. From what I understand, it was Pauline Kael who led the vanguard, who–ironically (or maybe not)–later got screwed over by Warren Beatty himself out of spite for having poorly reviewed Heaven Can Wait.

      What’s so ironic about the movie being lauded as oh, so countercultural was that it was actually subverting it. Folk music had exploded in the 1960s when American youth rediscovered the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who had been the voice of the dispossessed and laborers during The Great Depression. When the folk music renaissance was at its peak, this movie appropriated it to glamorize two criminal sociopaths who killed police and robbed and steal out of cowardice.

      What resulted were two things: a subliminal message to The Establishment that this is what the countercultural movement really stood for (violence and mayhem), as well as spoiling the folk music renaissance so that the true members of the counterculture would immediately abandon it. This subversion was so beautifully played that I have to wonder if it wasn’t planned.

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